Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 11
Our judgment determines what we see as right or wrong. Discourse 11 from book 1, titled by Arrian as; On Family Affection, shows an interaction Epictetus had with a government official. We witness a Socratic-like examination, which leads to a more profound look at our judgments. As we delve into this conversation, we see a great example of Stoic fate and how our opinions label the events that happen. This discourse is vital in placing the responsibility for our actions on ourselves and how we judge what happens to us.
After some questioning, Epictetus finds out that this man, a father, has left his family behind in Rome. The reason was that he couldn’t stand his daughter being ill. The man wants to know whether what he did was right or wrong. In his judgment, he did what was natural for him to do.
“Do but convince me that you were acting naturally, and I will convince you that everything natural is right.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 11.5
Epictetus leans on the Stoic belief that everything that is natural is right, at least if we must add that qualifier to it. It would be better to call it rational, as it is in line with how the Rational Universe works. This is where Stoic fate comes from, the cause and effect that determines everything that happens. And if it happens, then it was the right thing to happen.
What is Natural
To discover whether the visitor’s actions were natural, Epictetus wants to figure out how we can tell. We can have our judgments on colors, sounds, or flavors. He asks the man what we need to determine what they are. Sight for colors, hearing for sounds, and taste for flavor. Our senses will give us this information. Yet to know the criterion to define what is right or wrong, natural or unnatural, the man couldn’t tell. But can we ourselves now know how to tell right from wrong?
When there are so many opposing views on a similar topic, how can we know which one is right? That question is asked to our Roman guest as well. And he answers that if one of them is right, then the others must be wrong. The problem then is finding out who is right. It is our duty to do so. We must always remain critical, even in our own opinion. It is possible that we are in the wrong. Then we have to adjust and accept the truth. But first, we need to educate ourselves if we aren’t sure.
“And where there is ignorance, there is likewise want of knowledge and instruction in essential matters.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 11.14
“So you, then, now that you are aware of this, will in future apply yourself to nothing other, and think of nothing other than how to discover the criterion of what is in accordance with nature, and to apply that in judging each particular case.Epictetus, Book 1, Chapter 11.15
Judgments need truth
Now we have the cornerstone in place. If we cannot be sure of something, then we first have to seek out the truth. Only then can we start placing a judgment on the impression we receive. That for which we can use our senses, it is easier to determine what the facts are. But when we talk about right or wrong, we will have to take a deeper look. to do the right kind of examination.
In the case of the visitor, we look at family affection. We have to take each situation by itself and then examine it. This man has left his family because he couldn’t witness his child being ill. This is where the questioning into this particular situation starts. But we can use this template for many other situations. To learn how we find the truth and thus place the proper judgments on what happened. As we’ve seen, we use our senses to determine colors, taste, and other things our senses can perceive. For the natural and the right, we use reason and logic. Since that is the part that we share with the divine universe, it will also help us in finding the proper judgment.
What is Right or Wrong?
Epictetus looks at whether affection, towards the family in this case, is good. If it is so, then it must also be reasonable, because this is good as it belongs to nature. Now that we have established that it is good we need to know if our actions were in line with the good. Has the man been in accordance with affection by leaving his family? An action that he deemed to be the right one, seen from the fact that he left. Epictetus then starts asking him questions about the other members of his family.
He wants to know if the mother loved the child and whether she left as well. She stayed to help her child and furthermore, the man judged it wrong if she would have left as he did. Epictetus asks the same about the nurse and the attendant. They both loved the child and stayed to help nurse the child. For them, it would also have been wrong, in the guest’s eyes to have left the daughter. If his actions had been the right one, would not everyone who loved the child, then had to leave? And if all had acted the same as what the Roman deemed right, their great affection would have left their beloved child helpless and alone. Epictetus turns the tables on him, asking what he would have preferred, would he have been found ill.
“Pray, if you were sick yourself, should you be willing to have your relatives, and children themselves and your wife, so very affectionate as to leave you alone and desolate?”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 11.25
Upon this scenario, the man answers that it would not have been affection or the right action to take. They came to the conclusion that deserting their child was not the right thing to do. But yet he did it. And that’s why Epictetus isn’t done with the matter. Because at one point his judgment was that it was right to do so. Now we start to lean into Stoic fate again. The cause and effect of all things. At the time it felt right to the man.
This shows that we do wrongs out of ignorance, yet it seems right at the time. But with some further examination, we can realize that it was not the best decision. That’s why these moments are there for us to learn and adjust our judgments. To reflect on our past actions and use them to improve how we judge events. But that is also where the blame should be put.
“From this day forward, then, whenever we do anything wrong we will ascribe the blame only to the judgment from which we act; and we will endeavor to remove and extirpate that, with greater care than we would abscesses and tumors from our body.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 11.35
Our actions are based on our judgments
Our actions are based on our judgments, that’s where we need to place our attention. We must learn what the truth is. Examine the situation objectively, and then choose what is in accordance with nature. And thus the right thing to do. If then, later, we are shown that this wasn’t so, we need to take that information, reflect on our judgment, and adjust it for the future.
“It is necessary for you to become a student, that creature which every one laughs at, if you really desire to make an examination of your judgments.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 11.39
“But this, as you are quite aware, is not the work of a single hour or day.”Epictetus, The Discourses, Book 1, Chapter 11.40